Word Stress

In my position as LTO English Language Specialist, I get a lot of questions about where to stress a word. The rules of word stress can be one the most difficult things to learn in the English language. The main reason is that there are so many rules that it is very difficult to learn all the rules and remember them when speaking. In the following, I will explain the rules but remember that for every rule there are exceptions. That is why I will use quotation marks around the word “rule”.

The first “rule” is that nouns are generally stressed on the first syllable where verbs are stressed on the second syllable. Take the following example:

The students presented their findings to the rest of the class.
The students gave the teacher a present at the end of the school year.

Present is the verb in the first sentence and is, therefore, stressed on the second syllable where it is a noun in the second sentence and is stressed on the first syllable. This rule can be used for most nouns and verbs.

As soon as you remember this rule, you will find other rules that contradict it such as how some suffixes affect stress. Suffixes such as tion, ic and ity cause the stress to be put on the syllable before the suffix. For example, hero changes the stress to the second syllable with heroic. It can be argued that heroic is not a noun but words with ic generally aren’t. However, there are nouns with ic such as academic. The other two examples, tion and ity,are also stressed on the syllable before the suffix. The examples here are communication, education, community and normality. Look at the root words and then the words with the suffix. You will see the change in stress and it is due to the suffix.

Some suffixes cause the stress to be put two syllables before the suffix. The two most commonly used suffixes to prove this point are ize and ate. Educate, fabricate, emphasize and criticize should be stressed on the first syllable where communicate and industrialize need to be stressed on the second syllable. People whose second language is English often want to stress the syllables containing the suffix which can sound a little strange to the native speaker. Although we don’t realize we do it, two syllables before the suffix sounds much more natural.

On their own, stressing the wrong syllable will not cause someone to misunderstand you. However, we generally speak in sentences and not just words. Enough problems with word stress can cause someone to misinterpret the meaning of a sentence. Some non-native speakers say that they receive a look of concentration when people are listening to them. This makes them feel uncomfortable as they don’t feel the people understand them. Practice and understanding the rules inspire confidence which, in turn, makes communication more enjoyable.

This is just an introduction to the topic. There are many more suffixes that affect pronunciation and some that don’t. The English Language Support for Faculty program offers the practice and more “rules” that one can follow to improve pronunciation and communication. For more information, please email me at tunusodhi@ryerson.ca.

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